Report of The Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American HistorySmithsonian Institution - National Museum of American History


(Appendix F: Transforming the National Museum of American History, Behring Center)

3. Visitors to NMAH

We develop exhibitions and programs for our visitors, not for our own edification.

photo of visitors at lab bench

Piquing the interests of visitors in the Hands On Science Lab, part of Science in American Life

From existing studies of the Museum's audiences, we know:

  • Visitors and potential visitors consider NMAH to be both an educational institution and a place of entertainment. Audience studies show that Americans identify NMAH with heritage education and that they want to share this heritage with their children and grandchildren. They think of the Smithsonian as: "the American experience" and "an important museum for passing on to the kids the sense of what being American means."
  • Visitors and potential visitors to NMAH are increasingly sophisticated in their expectations. They want an active experience, not a passive one, and are looking for ways to make connections between what they see in the Museum and in their lives and today's world. They come with a sense of inquiry either consciously or unconsciously: "What's here for me?" "How can I connect this program or exhibition to who I am, what I'm interested in, or what I need to know?"
  • Visitors come to NMAH for the social experience as well as an interest in American history. Visitors, whether first-time or repeat, expect to have experiences involving real things, learning new information, and spending time with friends or family.
  • Visitors expect both physical and conceptual orientation. Visitors have expressed particular interest in time lines in order to understand the relative nature of history as well as where to find the exhibitions that represent the time periods they want to explore.
  • Visitors are interested in diverse stories told from multiple perspectives. According to focus groups, the three top-ranking expectations in a museum of American history are:
    - "learning about famous Americans and seeing the things that belonged to them,"
    - "learning how ordinary people lived in the past," and
    - "learning about the diverse backgrounds and beliefs of the American people."
  • Visitors appreciate different approaches to history and varied presentation media. Focus groups reveal that people enjoy opportunities to:
    - "learn how new information about our past changes our understanding of history,"
    - "see historical events from different points of view," and
    - "learn how technology works."
    Both adults and children emphasize how much they enjoy hands-on experiences that help them understand concepts that cannot be conveyed solely through static artifacts and labels.
  • Visitors to NMAH are increasingly diverse, and what they take away from the experience is highly individual and unpredictable. Successful experiences must incorporate the visitors' need both to find something personally meaningful and to learn something new or reaffirm previous knowledge or experience.
photo of button making activity

Making campaign buttons in The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden

These understandings provide the context not only for conceptualizing new exhibitions and programs but also for the larger planning and redesign of the Museum.

Table of Contents | Appendix F.4. Developing Exhibitions -->